Facing Serious Illness: Questions to Ask Your Doctor

By exercising your right to ask pertinent questions early in your relationship to your physician, you can find out if he or she is prepared to communicate with you in the way that you expect. If not, you can decide if you should seek another physician with whom you can have a more comfortable relationship. The following questions can help you talk to your physician.

Questions About Your Specific Illness

  • How will this illness and its treatments likely affect my family and me?
  • What might the "story" of the rest of my life be like? What kinds of complications or special needs might arise? What is the likely time frame over which this illness will extend? How am I likely to die?
  • What are the best outcomes that I can reasonably hope for?
  • What are the worst outcomes that my family and I might have to face?
  • What might be the more serious and disruptive problems that my medical and personal situation might cause and what can be done to plan ahead and manage them?
  • [When something new arises] Does this change what I can expect?
  • What symptoms am I likely to have as my disease progresses?
  • What medications or other treatments should I have at home in case of sudden pain or other symptoms? How do I use them?
  • What are the shortest and longest amounts of time that I can reasonably expect? [Instead of] How long do I have?

Source: If you or someone you love is very ill ask tough questions, Last Acts, a national coalition to improve care and caring near the end of life, and Handbook for Mortals: Guidance for People Facing Serious Illness by Joanne Lynn, MD and Joan Harrold, MD. Oxford University Press, 1999.

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